Tag: agriculture

Giving farmers a new crop: Solar Farms and expanding BTM methods for farmers

This is a guest post from Lena Stenvig, an undergraduate student at Michigan Tech. Lena is studying Computer Science and minoring in Environmental Studies. Lena took the photos included in this blog post. She can be reached at lsstenvi@mtu.edu

The cherry orchard at Garthe Farms LLC

America is all about its family-owned farms. From its popular food chains serving America-grown burgers to its corn-mazes in the fall attracting people from all around, none of it would be possible without the original small-town humble farmers that do their job equally for supporting their families and for the love of what they do every day; but now our farmers need help. When people moved away from their family farms over to less body-intensive jobs for work, fewer farms began producing more product on more land. Even so, many farmers struggle to produce enough crop to sustain themselves and their family. Around 91 percent of farming families have at least one family member working at a job that is not the farm. This is where Behind the Meter, or BTM comes in.

Behind the meter is a means of producing your own energy so that you are not pulling all of the energy you use from the grid, and as a result pay less for your electricity bill. A popular technique to behind-the-meter is installing solar-panels in one’s yard on upon the roof. In this way a household can produce green energy to lower its carbon footprint and can save on the electricity bill. A typical household has room for a few solar panels. Enough to sustain itself for most of the summer months, but usually not enough when the winter heating bill kicks in. A modern American farm has much more land than your typical resident. Even if most of it is used for farming, there are certainly space that could easily be allocated for a small solar farm. Having worked for Garthe Farms LLC this summer, a cherry farm deep in cherry country near Traverse City, MI, I have seen first-hand where and how this can work. My uncle, Gene Garthe, runs this farm and in recent years invested in four large solar panels that sit in empty space near the driveway nearing the farm house. These four solar panels produce enough energy to run what electricity is needed for the farm, and that is all they desire and need.

Despite producing plenty of energy via solar, Garthe Farms is not a emissions-free facility. Large machinery is used to harvest the cherries from their trees. There are three machines that are necessary in cherry harvesting: the Shaker, which shakes the cherries from the trees, the Catch Frame, which catches the cherries shaken by the Shaker and conveyors them into a tub, and the tractor that takes the tubs when full to the loading dock and brings the Catch Frame a new tub in which to fill more cherries. All three of these machines require diesel fuel to run, and as much work as one can complete towards electric vehicles, it is not economically feasible at the moment to make a machine that chugs through an entire tank of fuel in eight hours of work to operate on an electrically-rechargeable battery. To make up for their fuel usage, perhaps it is better that farms simply produce a form of green energy that can make up for the amount of fossil fuels they consume.

Cherry harvest in motion: The Shaker (far) moves to the next tree while the Catch Frame (near) is receiving a new tub in which to place the harvested cherries.

In this way farmers can reverse the BTM method. If they can produce their usual crop while also producing energy in either the form of solar or wind, they can sustain their household while also receiving return on what they put out to the grid. This can work if they can have some of their own personal solar panels to run what they need to on the farm, and then working with solar or wind companies to lease certain areas of their land to be utilized for said energy production. For wind, this is easy by simply taking up a small portion of land for each windmill. The minimally invasive turbines do not take up much room on the farm and do not hinder the crops from receiving enough sunlight. Solar panels can prove to be trickier. Because of their method of energy production, solar panels would not work well in a field full of crops that also require sunlight in order to grow. For farms that grow plants that take up less room per unit such as potatoes or corn, placing solar panels in spare spaces around the field while mostly utilizing wind power might be the best option. For farms like my uncle’s, it is a different story entirely.

Much of a cherry orchard’s area is taken up by plants and grasses that grow below the trees, and the trees stand spaced approximately ten feet apart within each row. Each row stands about another twenty five feet apart. Where some farms may be only able to place solar panels near roads or at the end of rows, orchards may place the panels in these locations are more. If one row of trees were to be replaced with solar panels, the loss of trees would be fairly minimal while also adding enormous potential for solar production. Even without removing trees, placing solar panels at the end of rows would not affect the production of fruit while also receiving gain on solar production.

If we are to look closer at our American farms and examine the issues they face today, and if we can only look at the potential they hold for energy production, we may not only be able to solve the growing problem of farms going bankrupt, but also for finding a place to produce greener energy without disrupting land that is not being used and additionally would ecologically be better off as it is. In this way farmers can continue to do what they love, and not have to work more than they have to in order to pay bills and keep their farm from dying. With this I might say the path onto greener pastures might just be creating greener pastures.


National Climate Assessment rolling out now

Ignore the beautiful but dysfunctional interactive website, and instead go straight to downloading the highlights  or the full report. The documents are a treasure trove of data, documenting all of the changes in our climate that we have already witnessed and what is likely to come. The report offers data and projections by region, sector, and response strategies.


Saying goodbye

Conservation biology is an often-dismal discipline. For every story with a happy ending, there are hundreds with a tragic one – and often beyond that, thousands that end without us ever knowing. The loss of species that endear themselves to us is always a particularly difficult goodbye.

The monarch butterfly is swiftly approaching a sad fate. Robbed of its critical food supply (milkweed) by industrial agriculture in the midwestern region of North America, fewer monarchs are able to reproduce and migrate back down to its wintering habitat in Mexico. This year, surveys of Mexican forests have recorded the lowest number of returning monarch butterflies since these surveys began. The monarch migration is a fantastic spectacle; these butterflies migrate thousands of miles in spring and fall. Their large size and colorful markings make them familiar to most, and hence their declining numbers are likely to be noticed. That is the good news.

In this conservation case, everyone can help. Planting milkweed (the native species to North America, not tropical species such as Asclepias curassavica) in your front and back yard will help replace the feeding stations that the butterflies have lost with agriculture, and allow them to build up their numbers. Large populations help the butterfly persist through late springs (which disrupt their breeding schedule) and extreme weather events that can kill them outright.

For more information on monarch biology and how to help, you can visit the Monarch Watch webpage.


Wendell Berry: Writing the Poetry and Economics of Ecological Responsibility

[This is a post from Katie Snyder, a PhD student in Rhetoric and Technical Communication here at Tech. This was an assignment for our Ecological Economics course.]

As far as I can tell, there’s not much conversation between economists and poets of late. This is unfortunate, in a way, because both are so closely attuned to the inconsistencies of human emotion. Economic news reporters, for example, will discuss “nervousness” in the market, or “optimism,” as if “the market” had feelings of its own. Poets, at the same time, are deeply concerned with emotive experience, adhering to schemes of rhythm and sense.

But it’s hard to find someone who can engage intelligibly in economics and poetry at the same time — harder still to find someone who can articulate a meaningful relationship between these two in the context of current ecological crises. Maybe there are more examples than one, but Wendell Berry is the best I can think of at this point.

Berry, now 79, is a poet and farmer, among other things. A graduate of the University of Kentucky, and winner of myriad writing prizes and awards, he’s taught and farmed and served as a local activist for most of his life. His writing is lovely and unexpected. Read, for example, “The Peace of Wild Things.”

Last spring Bill Moyers interviewed Berry as part of an ecologically-themed conference at St. Catharine’s College, located outside Louisville. The interview aired in Oct 2013 on Moyer’s program, and highlights the pragmatic and humble logic of Berry’s perspective.

Berry argues, for example, that it should be little wonder that the industrialized world finds it increasing difficult to keep human beings “employed.” He says that one of the two goals of industrialization was to replace people with machines, and points out that we’ve met this goal quite successfully—though politicians are loathe to make that connection. Berry says its his job, because he has “no power,” to call out this kind of inconsistency.

The suggestion that he has “no power” should be clarified however, because he believes that “the people” have power if they choose to take it, and that ecological damage can only be reversed in local and long-term schemes developed by communities who are devoted to their land. It is out of this commitment to rehabilitation and reclaiming that he advocates for the 50-year farm bill.

The bill proposes to move away from monoculture and return more crop diversity and more people to rural lands. Berry admits this proposal would take patience … and faith … and hope. But he is adamant that we must try. Even in the face of impossible odds he says,

“We don’t have a right to ask whether we are going to succeed or not. The only thing we have a right to ask is, ‘What’s the right thing to do? What does this earth require of us if we want to continue to live on it?’”

And while these are philosophical and spiritual and ethical questions, Berry points out that they are also very pragmatic economic questions. Toward this end, he is intensely critical of modern capitalism. He argues that its “natural logic” is to take as much as you want, by whatever means you can devise—and this logic is simply unsustainable.

Berry’s love for, and obligation to, nature plays out in his economic perspectives as much as in his poetry.  He says his writing gives an account of “precious things,” most of which are now in danger of falling away. His hope is that we can again begin to see the world in terms of its preciousness—its sacredness—rather than simply in terms of its immediate economic value.


Food in the UP neighborhood

And finally a foodie post from my current haunts…. the UP Food Exchange website is up and running! Make it your first stop for information on local food news, farmers and markets, as well as an online market to increase agricultural connectivity across the three UP regions (Western, Central, and Eastern).


More urban farming news from my old haunts

This time it’s news from Cincinnati that one of the oldest community gardens in Over the Rhine would have been bulldozed for housing development. The “Eco-Garden” is a lovely garden that I used to walk by frequently on my way to downtown from Clifton, so it is very good news indeed that it has not only been spared, but incorporated into the city’s redevelopment plans for Over the Rhine.

While Over the Rhine is one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cincinnati, it has deep cultural roots that include food and urban ag. I spent most of my Saturday mornings at the historic Findlay Market, which was open year-round thanks to a major improvement about 8 years ago to enclose the main stalls in a four-seasons building. Before that project, Findlay Market definitely required a bit of stoicism for winter shopping, but it separated the committed from the fair-season shoppers.

Farmers Markets are quickly returning to cities around the country, after decades of lagging interest. It is quite an impressive achievement for Findlay Market to have withstood the test of time. And now it appears, happily, that the Eco-Garden will too.


Chicago’s new Urban Farmer program

Grist.org published a segment last week on Chicago’s new urban farmer program, aiming to train up to 100 farmers each year on how to establish an urban neighborhood farm, both from the agricultural as well as the business side.

Many contracting or otherwise struggling urban cities in the US are looking to agriculture as a solution for vacant lots and unhealthy diets, from Pittsburgh to Detroit to Los Angeles. (You know it’s a trend when the New York Times has an entire online section dedicated to it.) Farming (or even gardening) on a vacant lot can be challenging, from polluted soil to poor drainage to pest infestations, not to mention ordinance violations. But as experience with these transformations grow, lessons learned from converting many thousands of acres of brownfields into greenfields could help localize our food system and provide much needed urban employment. It’s also a great way to immerse children in the food system, allowing easier access to gardens (to participate in growing their own food) and a natural way to get to know others in their community.

Personally, I’m glad to see the change of heart in my native city; let’s see if the suburbs follow suit and relax their landscaping ordinances that prohibit gardens in front yards.


Hands-on Learning

I just came across an interesting post in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Scott Carlson regarding the need/desire for college students to learn life skills and trades in addition to more abstract or technical knowledge. A few colleges are already requiring their students to learn wood-working, machining, farming, and other skills, and from this article (and my own experience) it seems that students might really need to learn the basics as well (cooking and cleaning).

I would whole-heartedly agree with this shift. Back when I used to teach a first year Perspectives class (“Developing a Sustainability Mindset”), one of the assignments required the students to organize a potluck with their friends, and write about where the food came from (that is, what country or region, to estimate food miles), where the recipe originated, and the story behind the choices of dishes that the students made. In many cases, the lack of cooking knowledge overwhelmed the assignment, as many students were steaming rice or cooking pasta for the first time. That was certainly a shock to me, and represents a pretty profound shift in just one generation in American culture. I don’t remember a single friend of mine in college (male or female) who couldn’t master at least the “boil only” foods, and pop popcorn and cook cookies as well.

Many of the “Transition Town” and other relocalization movements rely on a wealth of DIY knowledge in their communities, but this assumption may need to be checked. If younger citizens do not know how to establish a garden or produce staples like clothing and cookware (not to mention build and maintain equipment), the transition to more localized production systems and economies might be made significantly more difficult.

Clearly we all have some educating to do!


Ninth Floor Farms

Michigan Tech has launched itself into the urban ag movement with an aquaponics set-up in the ninth floor greenhouse in the Dow. Established by Robert Handler (in the Sustainable Futures Institute) and Nancy Auer (Biological Sciences), the farm is producing basil, tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, and more than three dozen tilapia (in the large blue bins with the mesh on top). The water from the fish bins (filled with fish poop) circulates to the planted containers, where the plants use the fish fertilizer to grow. The water trickles through the soil, leaving through the bottom as clean water that is then circulated back into the fish tanks. Given the great success of its inaugural year, I can envision a steady flow of fresh, local veggies and fish appearing in the campus dining halls in the near future.

Prof. Nancy Auer and Dr. Robert Handler discussing the aquaponics system at Michigan Tech